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Montel Williams: Why Conservatives Need to Change the Dialogue About Race

Last week’s unrest in Charlotte was hard for me to watch, not just as a black man, but as an American.

It’s a metaphor for where we’re at as a county. We’re a country desperate to be divided, to choose one side or another, and to reduce complicated societal problems into simple campaign slogans and cable news soundbites.

Certainly, we saw this play out in the conservative media last week after the violence in Charlotte: not only did conservatives’ talking points fail to resolve the unrest, they sent a dangerous message to minority voters (whom the GOP claims to be courting)—Give us your vote, but don’t bother us with the issues you care about.

Conservatives need a reality check. The Black Lives Matter movement is raising a very legitimate issue that reaches beyond the police killing black people. They’re talking about policing in general in communities of color. And they’re talking about the criminal justice system —which everyone from the Koch Brothers, to Paul Ryan, to conservative stalwart Senator Mike Lee to Bernie Sanders agree is in desperate need of reform.

Image: FILES-US-IT-LIFESTYLE-MEDIA-RACISM
This file photo taken on July 9, 2016 shows a police officer patrols during a protest in support of the "Black Lives Matter" movement in New York. Social media has become a key forum for discussing US race relations -- but far more so for blacks than whites, a study showed August 15, 2016. KENA BETANCUR / AFP - Getty Images

Why are conservatives reacting defensively to Black Lives Matter’s questions? Nothing about them are anti-police or “soft on crime.” In fact, they’re aimed to remedy structural inequality that even police officers agree exists – fixing this problem, raised not only by the Black Lives Matter movement, is morally right, an economic imperative and, likely, takes the burden of structural inequality, for which not a single serving officer is responsible, off the backs of individual officers.

I’m deeply troubled by Donald Trump’s—and his supporters’—false portrayals of black America. To listen to Donald, you’d think all black people are unemployed, on welfare, living in a war zone and generally destitute. This is obviously not true.

I’m concerned with Donald’s repeated lies about the level of danger in black communities. Let’s take Ferguson, for instance. After a simple Google search, I discovered that Ferguson is on the upswing. The local community and city council has teamed up with County Executive Steve Senger to aggressively pursue development projects, bring investment and jobs to the community, and incubate small businesses—minority-owned businesses among them. Ferguson has had its share of problems, no question, but it’s also not an active war zone, as fact-flaunting Trump puts it.

RELATED: Editorial: Charlotte is Drowning in Systematic Injustice

Let me be clear: I have made no judgment on the case of Keith Lamont Scott that caused Charlotte to erupt into chaos last week, but I do have many questions that I assume a full investigation will answer.

Let me be clear: I do not condone rioting. Legitimate, peaceful protest might be inconvenient at times (e.g. blocking streets – which is illegal, but has historically been a part of constructive civil disobedience) but there’s no excuse for property destruction or violence. I commend the Charlotte Police for arresting those who engaged in criminal behavior of the sort and would not both black and white rioters have been charged.

That said, one wonders why North Carolina’s Governor Pat McCrory appeared on Hannity to make an appeal to Charlotte’s black community (as you might imagine, neither Hannity nor Fox News rate well with black viewers). Perhaps he didn’t want to answer tough questions about the ridiculous anti-LGBT legislation he signed and has defended; or comment on the ill-advised body camera bill passed by his legislature, which would destroy transparency. Similarly, what was North Carolina Congressman Robert Pittenger thinking when he told the BBC-- the unrest in Charlotte is due to black people being jealous of white peoples’ success?

To put it bluntly, by Wednesday of last week I found myself hoping that both Trump and North Carolina conservative leaders would simply sit down and shut up. It appears they’re hell bent on making an already difficult situation worse. Predictably though, Trump continued his racist and insensitive comments—suggesting that our southern border and drug cartels (a suggestion that Charlotte’s black community was in a fit of intoxicated rage?) were to blame for the unrest in Charlotte.

House Holds Hearing On US Marine Imprisoned In Mexico
Montel Williams testifies about Andrew Tahmooressi during a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill October 1, 2014 in Washington, DC. The Subcommittee is hearing testimony on Andrew Tahmooressi who is being held in a Mexican prison for bringing firearms over the border after making a wrong turn. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

We can do better folks—specifically conservatives. We can challenge ourselves to stop laughing at Trump’s racist rhetoric and consider the effect. When Donald insists Ferguson is one of the most dangerous places on earth—do what I did—Google it! Read up on Ferguson’s recovery efforts. Learn about their burgeoning business sector. Then, as conservatives, cheer it on!

I support law enforcement. I believe 95+ percent of police officers are heroes who perform their jobs with honor and distinction every day. These are men and women who run toward danger when everyone else runs away. But I can both support good cops while demanding accountability for those who step out of line. This philosophy is deeply ingrained—from my 22 years of military service. I believe good cops, like good soldiers, benefit from bad ones being held accountable. I have long made it a practice—whenever I share a negative story about the police—to share two more about police officers who’ve demonstrated extraordinary acts of kindness and heroism. It’s my small way of supporting those who have the courage to carry a badge and gun.

As a member of the black community, I’m very familiar with the problem of black on black crime. Most of us in the black community are. We understand parts of Chicago are too dangerous for children to walk. There’s protests about this all the time (the media doesn’t cover them). For me, it’s like nails on a chalkboard hearing conservatives say: stop focusing on black men being shot by police and focus on black on black violence! They’re both major problems and both in dire need of reform. If you—my fellow conservatives—are sincerely eager to help tackle black-on-black violence in Chicago, I’d encourage you to look into the community-based programs addressing this violence, many of which are faith-based. Consider supporting them.

RELATED: Analysis: For Clinton, Deploring Trump's Racial Views Part of a Broader Strategy

Let me conclude with some context. I was once a young black man, and I’m raising a black son in his 20’s. It’s a fact that my son is more likely to be stopped by the police than his white friends. I’m not calling police racist. I’m saying there’s something called implicit bias. My white friends don’t understand the feeling I get, as a black father, when one of these shootings occurs. I realize that statistically, death by cop for a young black male might be relatively rare on a per capita basis—but every time I learn about one of these shootings, I think about the next time my son gets pulled over.

Will an officer’s implicit bias lead him to believe my (broad-shouldered) black son is a threat? Will this set off an adrenaline-fueled chain of events leading to shots fired? My son is law abiding. He’s never been arrested, he’s in school, he’s done everything right. But he was born with a strike against him—his color. And that’s where a lot of this anger comes from.

Image: Charlotte protests
A protestor holds a sign as he confronts riot police officers in Charlotte, North Carolina, USA, 21 September 2016. North Carolina governor Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency after protesters took to the streets of Charlotte, North Carolina, for the second consecutive night to demonstrate against the fatal shooting of African-American Keith Lamonth Scott by police officers. CAITLIN PENNA / EPA

That’s the part conservatives need to consider. If we all come to the table—together—and speak without offending and listen without defending—we can solve this problem.

The first enlisted black marine to both be selected for the Naval Academy Preparatory School and graduate the Naval Academy, Montel Williams served 22 years in both the Navy and the Marines before going on to start the Emmy-award winning “Montel Williams” show, which ran for 17 seasons. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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